Newcomers' Guide 2017
If you just got here, you’ve probably heard a bit about something called “Old Portland.” To be clear: Old Portland is whatever existed before you got here. It’s an imaginary place swathed in nostalgia and informed by more than a little contempt for outsiders. Old Portland might be the dream of xenophobic locals who wish that you’d go back to Minnesota or Delaware or wherever else you’re from, but there is definitely a historic Portland. Here are a few places where you can check out Portland’s past.
If you’re looking for Old Portland, you might as well start in the place that’s literally labeled “old” on the map. Portland’s Old Town is a lot of things. It’s a center for social services that support many homeless Portlanders, it’s home to several art galleries that open their doors to visitors every First Thursday, and it’s where you’ll find some of Portland’s oldest architecture. There’s also a whole Chinatown thing trying to happen, but for Portland’s actual Chinatown, you’ll have to head out to SE 82nd. (Go to Ocean City for dim sum. That place is amazing.)
The Old Town-iest place in Old Town is Old Town Pizza, which dates all the way back to the year of Our Lord, 1974. However, the Merchant Hotel Building where Old Town Pizza resides is much older, dating from the 1880s. The wood floors and brick walls of the building are decidedly not contemporary, and it’s one of the precious few Portland buildings that have a sense of the past about it.
Old Town Pizza’s décor definitely plays that up (sometimes bordering on historical kitsch), and there’s a spiel about being haunted—so that’s certainly a thing. If you want real history, go around the corner to the Nikkei Legacy Center to learn about Old Town’s history as a center of the Japanese American community prior to internment during WWII.
Also while you’re outside, place magnets on the columns of the Merchant Hotel Building. Through the miracle of magnetism, they will stick. Cast iron architecture was popular in Portland in the 1880s, but very little of it remains now. If you carry a magnet around (and why wouldn’t you?), you can detect which old-looking buildings in the neighborhood have metal columns.
The oldest building in Portland, though, is just outside of Old Town—an unremarkable brick box on Naito and Oak. Last time I checked, it was for lease.
If you’re just arriving, you’ll probably hear one of two opinions from Portlanders about McMenamins. They’ll either speak of the local brewpub chain with exhaustion and exasperation, or they’ll shrug and say it’s fine. Don’t listen to the haters. McMenamins is great.
If you want to soak up some history, they have you covered. McMenamins buys up old properties, restores them, and then turns them into bars, restaurants, and brewpubs that incorporate that history into their new identity. We have amazing Portland locations like the Bagdad Theater and the Kennedy School because of them. Also check out Edgefield, Ringlers, and the Mission Theater. Each location includes loads of information on its past, and there’s beer. Why would you dislike something full of history and beer?
The Goose Hollow Inn
The Goose Hollow Inn is mostly known as being Bud Clark’s old bar. Clark was mayor of Portland from 1985 to1992, and he was one of the city’s more colorful public officials. He was known for biking before it was cool, having a large handlebar mustache, and (more importantly) overseeing the implementation of light rail in Portland. Prior to being elected mayor, he owned a hippie-esque bar and restaurant that claimed to have “the best Reuben on the planet.” It is indeed a pretty good sandwich, and the Clark family still owns and operates the pub.
Local Dive Bars
But if you really want to get into Portland’s history as a blue-collar town, go to a neighborhood dive. And not a new dive. Not a carefully constructed dive. Go to a genuine hole in the wall full of video poker and sticky floors. Get a drink at the bar and take in the scenery. Note the geriatric people watching a Blazers game on a television old enough to still have a CRT monitor. Have another drink. Look at the parts of the walls stained with cigarette smoke, even though you can’t smoke in bars anymore. Have another drink. See? You’re fitting in already.